We Drove All Night: Tales From The Ragnar Relay Cape Cod

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Two weeks ago, I participated in the Reebok Ragner Relay-Cape Cod. What is that, you ask? As described by the official website:

The Ragnar is the overnight running relay race that makes testing your limits a team sport. You and 11 of your craziest friends pile into two vans and tag team running 200(ish) miles, day and night, relay-style. Only one runner hits the road at a time.

In a nutshell: A team is made up of 12 runners divided into two vans, and each person runs three different legs (of varying distance) over the course of about 30 hours. The first runner starts in Hull, MA, and the last runner finishes in Provincetown, MA. Someone is always running, even throughout the night. When you are not running, you are fake-sleeping or inhaling trail mix.

The whole thing kicks off on a Friday morning at 6:00am – I am at my friend Meredith’s house loading my duffle and sleeping bag into a 15 person van, which will be our mobile home for the next 30 hours. By “us” I mean the six crazy women from Scituate who make up Van #1 of our running team called “The Scituation.” Clever name, right? Van #2 holds another crazy six women also from – you guessed it- Scituate.

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I could give you a play by play of the whole 30 hour experience, but to be honest most of it is a bit foggy, as I was never entirely sure of the time and/or my exact location. So I will stick to the part of the story that stands out for me, which was my 6 mile night run:

It is around 10PM and we are sitting in the van waiting for my teammate Jenna to finish her run so the next runner (me) can start. It is my first real low point of the day. It’s raining. Hard. I am cold and tired and it’s so dark. Darkness in general disorients me. When Phil is away on business, I sleep with the lights on in case I need to fend off an intruder or vomiting child. Light makes me feel sharper somehow.

I am trying to calculate how long Jenna will take on her run. This requires math, which is not something I can manage in full daylight on a normal day. I say out loud to no one in particular:

“So if Jenna runs around a 8.5 minute mile…and she’s running like 4.5 miles..or was it 5.5? Wait, when did she start?”

No one knows. We are all in the same wet, leaky boat.

“Ok, I am just going to walk over to the finish line and wait.”

My teammate Katie walks with me, as someone needs to guide Jenna back to the van. Along the way we stop at a water-logged tent serving a Dixie cup of weak, $2 coffee. I chug it. The text bell on my phone dings. It’s from Jenna:

“I am done.”

Shit. Apparently Jenna runs like a 6 minute mile. I run to the finish line, where Jenna slaps the bracelet on my wrist. I am not ready; I feel discombobulated. My headlamp is secure but my reflective vest keeps coming un-velcroed and my headphones are dangling from my hand. Considering that it is pitch black and pouring, and I am running on a road with cars, I decide that silencing yet another one of my senses might be a bad idea. Lose the music. I try and stuff my phone and headphones in my waist belt but I am also trying to run and it’s just not a good Scituation. With every other step my foot lands in a pond like puddle. My feet are already squishy and I am only about .2 miles in.

After a few minutes of tinkering with the gear, I get my shit together and find my groove. It is dark and rainy but I am running. Because the race start times are staggered, there are not a large number of other runners with me, but enough that I see some running ahead of me; headlamps and reflective arm bands bobbing up and down like a small army of fireflies.

I tune into my surroundings and suddenly the sound of the rain and the crickets combine into a symphony of natural sound. It is lovely and my eyes fill with tears. I am having a moment. I thank God for this – for this feeling of total presence and aliveness. I have legs and lungs that work well enough to bring me to this place, and that is a beautiful, miraculous thing.

The footsteps of another runner behind me interrupts my reverie. I slow down ever so slightly, allowing him to pass me. But he does not pass me. He keeps pace directly behind me. And I do mean DIRECTLY. I can hear him breathing. I am a personal space kinda gal and this is making me uncomfortable. If I were in a mall parking lot, this is the time I would start saying the Hail Mary and pray that when they find my dead body in the trunk of the car, I am at least wearing nice underwear. That is how close he is. Apparently the reflective light clipped to the collar of my vest begins to come loose, because my shadow runner dude reaches over and re-clips it. BECAUSE THAT IS HOW CLOSE HE IS.

My running watch beeps and he says, “Where we at? 3 miles?”

I smile in spite of myself. “Yup,” I say. “Half way there.”

I realize my running buddy is not going anywhere. This is what it is. The Scituation is not going to change so I need to change the way I look at the Scituation. Instead of tuning him out, I decide to tune him in. When teaching yoga, I encourage students to sync up their breath to their neighbors; to create a powerful wave of prana/energy that will carry them through a difficult pose, together. This what I do with my running buddy. I allow his breath to carry mine. I tune into the cadence of his feet sloshing through puddles. The sound becomes less of an intrusion and more of a meditation: slap, slap, splash, slap, slap, splash.

I slowly feel my jaw unclench and my shoulders sink away from my ears. Suddenly I have the thought: My runner buddy is meant to be here. And I know this because he is here. Maybe he saw my vest come un-velcroed at the same time both shoelaces came loose and thought to himself, this chick is a hot mess and needs adult supervision. And just like that, my creepy mall stalker guy is transformed into my Ragnar Guardian Angel. My feelings of annoyance and unease give way to safety and gratitude. My imaginary boundary bubble evaporates. I choose connection over isolation, and this brings me back into the moment. I am alive again. Me and my running buddy, sloshing it out in the dark, together.

The week leading up to the race, my mom kept asking me, “And why are you doing this, exactly?”

My answer was a less-than-profound: “Uh, I don’t know….because someone asked me to?”

But now I know why I did it, and why I will do it again: For me, the Ragnar was an education in choosing my perspective. There is something about stepping outside your comfort zone that tests your meddle in the attitude department. Relay running 200 miles on no sleep and spending 29 hours in a van with women I only sort of know was way outside my comfort zone. But with new experiences comes personal growth. I learned to:

  • Let my guard down. (ie. Strip down to my thong in the back of a van).
  • Surrender to what is. (Sometimes at 2am, there just is no coffee. Anywhere. And you just have to deal.)
  • Connect with people in unexpected places. (Like in line for a port-a-potty.)
  • Be grateful: For my teammates who drove the van because I don’t know how to use that rear-view camera thing-y, that one decadent hour of sleep, my body for hanging in there, the three delicious beers I pounded when it was over.

My soggy night run comes to an end, and I hand my baton-bracelet off to my teammate Nicole. My running buddy turns around and I see his face for the first time when he says:

“How did we do??? What was our time??”

I relay our stats and he raises his arms above his head for a double high-five. Our hands meet with a loud clap.

Before disappearing into the crowd he says: “Thanks for pushing me!”

And my eyes get a little misty, because it never occurred to me that maybe he was grateful for me, too.

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Fear

It is 4:30 am when the fire alarm goes off and I feel like I am shot out of a cannon: “Evacuate! Evacuate!” commands the computerized fire alarm lady. Down the hall, Phoebe is screaming. She is standing in the middle of her room, hysterical. Her reaction was immediate, as if she knew it was coming and was already poised for disaster. She is screaming: “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die! I hate this house! It’s on fire!”

Sidenote: The house was not on fire. The heating system in the old house we are currently renting is equivalent to a dragon breathing fire into long tube, sending the hot air directly in the path of the fire alarm. Also, I read that dust blown at the fire alarm can also set it off. And we got dust. Lots and lots of it.

Phoebe is in first grade, and first grade is when they learn about Fire Safety. I remember it with Emma because she could not sleep until I bought her one of those fire ladders off Amazon for $139.99.

Fire Safety week sparks a memory for me:

I am in first or second grade, and my classmates and I are assembled in the school library for a “special video.” I am sitting next to my friend Kate and I am wearing polka dot tights. Kate and I are supposed to be sitting indian style with our hands folded in our lap, but instead we are counting the polka dots on my tights; connecting the dots to form shapes and patterns. The librarian yells at us, and tears immediately form behind my eyes. As the video starts, I am already in a fragile state.

The video is on bus safety, but no one tells us this, they just start the movie. It begins with a happy scene of excited children getting on a school bus. They find their seats, they chit-chat, they compare backpacks. One girl is carrying a tissue paper flower with a pipe-cleaner stem. Another boy proudly carries his pet hamster in a cage; he is bringing it in for show and tell. Another sneaky little boy slyly shows his seat mate the pocket knife he has stashed in his school bag.

The boy with the hamster thinks it a good idea to place the hamster on the bus driver’s shoulder, who is currently operating the vehicle. He and his friends snicker, as if to say: “This will be hilarious!”

You can imagine what happens next. Now multiply that by 100 and that’s actually what happens next.

The bus doesn’t just get into a fender bender. The bus flips about five times and finally lands upside down in an embankment. It happens quickly: flip, flip, flip. The bus rolls like a barrel. Then they show the scene again from inside the bus. Kids are getting thrown around like rag dolls. The driver smashes into the wind shield. The pipe-cleaner stem of the tissue paper flower gouges someone’s eyeball. And the pocket knife. Don’t even get me started on the knife. There’s blood everywhere. It is bus safety turned Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The End.

A teacher turns the lights back on. The library is silent with the acceptation of a few kids quietly weeping. But the message of the movie is clear: If you bring crafts, rodents, or cutlery on the school bus you will end up with a pipe cleaner through your eyeball.

For me, the scare technique proved effective. I never messed around on the bus again. The same was true years later, after watching Helen Hunt jump out a window in the anti-drug ABC Afterschool Special Desperate Lives, I vowed to never try angel dust. Or snort anything in general. Same goes for the drunk driving. In middle school we watched a movie with teenagers flying through windshields set to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” That song still triggers memories of sitting on the cold metal stool in the science lab, watching some girl with feathered hair and blue eye shadow shotgun beers while driving her mother’s station wagon before crashing into a tree. The 80’s were big on just scaring the shit out of you.

Now, you may argue that these fear-based teaching techniques just create fearful people. And if you are using me as an example, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But I am also still alive with both eyeballs, so…I could go either way on this argument.

When Emma was in first grade, Fire Safety Week was a call to action: the ladder, the fire escape plan, testing all the fire alarms. Having all these boxes checked made her feel safe and in control. Like me, Emma is very good in a crisis. It’s the day-to-day stuff we can’t handle, like…getting dressed or packing a suitcase. But I digress.

Phoebe, on the other hand, is typically a pretty chill kid, but once the fire alarm goes off, she’s Helen Hunt on angel dust. Phoebe is a fire safety liability.

So I did a little research and decided the first step was to have a fire escape plan. Knowledge is power, right? I printed out the instructions and we all sat down at dinner to Make The Plan.

Emma remembered the drill: “Oh you need to print two worksheets, one for the upstairs and one for the downstairs.”

Phoebe was quiet and still. There was a piece of angel hair pasta hanging out of her mouth, of which she seemed unaware. The only movement was in her eyes, which kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger……

“This is scaring me MORE!” And she started to cry.

Sigh.

Phil and I had a conversation with our eyes that said, “Yeah, let’s hold off on this.” We changed the subject and distracted her with Girl Scout Cookies. I was cleaning up in the kitchen when I heard Phoebe say to Phil: “Will you sit on the couch and snuggle with me?”

“Sure,” he said.

I still want to get to the fire escape plan. But maybe for some of us, the first step to being safe is feeling safe. And right now for Phoebe, that safe place is on the couch, in her dad’s arms.

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Fretting

Helicopter parenting refers to “a style of parents who are over focused on their children,” says Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide (via Parents Magazine).

Define “over focused.”

In recent months I have felt myself “focused” on the kids more that usual. I would not consider myself a full-blown helicopter parent, but moving -as we did again in August – brings out my hovering tendencies. I know we are asking a lot of the kids to adjust to a change in place, a different school, new friends. So I am constantly watching them, checking in: Are they feeling adjusted? Are they happy? What do they need to feel at home?

IMG_7769I have noticed that it takes my kids about 4-5 months to really settle in after a move. It is at this point that the veil of anxiety seems to lift and they find their groove, their comfort zone, their routine. They morph back into their carefree, confident, snarky selves. Read: They don’t need me to hold their hand anymore.

Unfortunately once I am in helicopter mode, it is hard to turn it off. My blades are going too fast. For me, worrying is a bit of an addiction – once I start I can’t stop. My grandmother used to call it “fretting.” I get drunk on fretting and sometimes do stupid things I will second guess in the morning.

For example:

Episode #1:

It is the afternoon of Emma’s holiday chorus concert and we are scrambling to get ready. Emma has a cold. She is tired and nervous and indecisive about what to wear. She wants my opinion on her outfit but only if my opinion matches the decision she has already made in her mind but refuses to share. Because I am supposed to guess. I guess wrong. Twice.

She is very congested and demands tissues. I hand her a roll of toilet paper because I forgot to buy tissues. She blows her nose and it is impressive. She is a fountain of snot. How is she going to sing through all that snot? My OCD train has left the station. I have appointed myself the Mucus Manager.

We load up in the car and bring the toilet paper. She can’t bring toilet paper on stage – how will she blow her nose? I dig through my bottomless bag in search of tissues and my hand finds a travel pack I stole from my mother’s bathroom. It’s a Christmas miracle. Suddenly I am Mom of the Year.

I turn in my seat, victorious, arm extended, passing the tissues to Emma like the Olympic torch. “Look what I found!”

“I don’t want them.”

“But you said you can’t stop blowing your nose.”

“I don’t want the tissues, Mom.

“But you could just stick them in your pocket….”

“MOM.”

“Ok, ok fine, no tissues.”

I turn back around in my seat. A minute passes.

“Fine, just give me the tissues.”

I pass them back to her. We get out of the car and walk toward the school. As we open the double doors and she spots a group of her friends, she spins around and tosses me the packet of tissues.

“I don’t want the tissues.”

And with that, she takes off down the hall toward the chorus room.

But how is she going to sing through all that snot?

I am not proud of what happens next.

I should have just gone to my seat. But I don’t. I follow her down the hall and slip into the chorus room. I slink against the back wall, creeping behind the risers where the kids are finding their spots. What the hell am I doing in here, I think but it is too late, I am in the middle of the room. One of Emma’s friends spots me. Shit. She taps Emma on the shoulder and points. Shit. Emma looks at me with eyes that say “WHAT. ARE. YOU. DOING. HERE.”

I hold up the packet of tissues and point to them. I mouth to her “I WILL LEAVE THESE RIGHT HERE,” pointing to the chair that holds her jacket. Then I gave her a thumbs up. Emma’s eyes get wide. Her friend snickers. This ship is sinking and I can’t save myself. The music stands feel embarrassed for me.

I find Phil in the auditorium and slink into my seat. I text my friend Julie and give her a play by play of what just went down. She replies with helicopter emojis.

Episode #2

Phoebe lands the role of Sally in a local stage production of A Charlie Brown Christmas. For seven Sundays she rehearses from 3:00-6:00; a big commitment for a six year old. We practice her lines in the car, before bed, while she brushes her teeth. She has two big scenes: one with Charlie Brown and one with Linus.

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thumb_IMG_8225_1024The big night arrives. I drop Phoebe backstage and we settle into our seats.

I try to be patient but I am counting the scenes until Phoebe’s stage debut, when she dictates her Santa letter to Charlie Brown. After what feels like an eternity she and Charlie Brown take the stage:

Sally: Dear Santa Claus: How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year so I have a long list of presents that I want.

Charlie Brown: Oh, brother.

Sally: Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems to complicated, makes things easy on yourself. Just send money. How about tens and twenties?

Charlie Brown: Tens and twenties! Oh, even my baby sister!

Sally: All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.

She nails it. My smile threatens to break my face.

I can relax – the hard part is over. She only has one line in her next scene with Linus and it’s an easy one. I sit back and in my chair and let my butt cheeks de-clench.

But then the scene with Linus begins and Phoebe is not on stage. I check the program. I check the program again. There is her name, clearly listed.

Oh my God where is she.

I turn to Phil and hiss, “Where is she???” Like he knows. Like he somehow telepathically received some inside information while sitting right next to me rifling through my bag for gum.

He looks concerned which freaks me out. Then he shrugs his shoulders.

Did she puke? Is she in the bathroom and missed the entrance? Phoebe has a habit of pooping at inopportune moments.

But what if she’s sick? What if she’s crying? Do I go back there?

I turn to Phil. “Do I go back there?”

We look around us and realize we are smack in the middle of the row. “Do I text Amy?” Amy is the director of the show and conveniently a good friend. Phil shrugs again.

With my index finger poised over the keyboard, a text from Amy appears on my phone:

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As I am typing “do you need me? I can come back” I am already climbing over people, lunging and stumbling and excusing myself to freedom. Once I push my way through the auditorium doors and escape into the hallway, I take off in a full sprint. I weave my way through bags of costumes and kids waiting for their curtain call until I reach backstage. Then, I see her, her big blue bow askew, her hand pressing a wad of bloody tissues to her nose.

She turns and sees me. Her costume is covered in blood. Those blue eyes, so big and scared, fill up with tears like giant fishbowls.

patrick cryingCrying for me is highly contagious. My tagline could be Dolly Parton’s line from Steel Magnolias: “I have a strict policy that no one cries alone in my presence.”

But I know if I cry we are sunk. I pinch my leg hard and force a fake smile as I crouch down next to her.

“Mommy,” she whimpers, “I have a bloody nose.”

“Yes, you did,” I say. “But it has stopped. You are ok now.”

She whispers, “Can we go home now? RIGHT NOW?” She clutches my arm with her bloody little hand.

“The play is ending – don’t you want to take your bow?”

She stares at me blankly. She looks like a cartoon character with PTSD. I realize this is the part where I have to step in and decide about the bow. She is cooked, she is toast. 95% of me wants to swoop her up and get her out of there, but 5% says: You are not actively bleeding so do the bow. Finish what you started. I have no idea if this is the right decision but I go with it.

She does the bow, sort of. She kind of lurks stage right, still holding the bloody tissues to her nose. Close enough.

The curtains close and she runs to me. The other kids are so sweet and supportive, giving her hugs and high fives. She forces a smile but wants out.

She grabs my arm and whispers: “Can we go home right now?”

With heads down, we weave our way through the crowded lobby. I spot Phil and give him the “wrap it up” signal with my finger. When we reach the car, Phoebe says, “Will you sit in the way back with me?” We settle into the third seat and hold hands. As the car pulls out of the lot, she starts to weep.

“I missed my scene with Linus.”

“I know. It’s ok. You nailed the big scene with Charlie Brown.”

“I sort of missed my bow.”

“No you didn’t! You went out there. You bowed.”

“How did you know I had a bloody nose?”

“Amy texted me.”

She turns to me in the dark; headlights from passing cars illuminate her streaky cheeks. “When you got her text….did you get up and leave right away?”

“Right away.”

“Did you run?”

I squeeze her hand, our fingers intertwined. “I ran.”

She sighs and rests her head on my arm. Suddenly she separates our fingers and presses my hand flat with my palm facing up. Then she places her hand in my open palm and wraps her fingers in-between mine. I begin to wrap my fingers around her knuckles but she stops me.

“No. You keep your hand flat. This is how I want to hold hands. With only me holding on.”

I smile, but at the same time my heart hurts a little. Both emotions -the joy and the sadness- are equally true for me in that moment; connection and separation sharing the same bittersweet space.

“Got it,” I say, uncurling my fingers away from hers. “I can do that.”

I can do that.

 

Ladies Leave Your Man At Home: Tales From a High School Reunion

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Last weekend I attended my 20th high school reunion.

In the week leading up to it, Phoebe repeatedly confused the word reunion with funeral: “Are you excited for your funeral, Mom? What are you going to wear to your funeral?”

“It’s a REUNION, Phoebe,” corrected Emma. “A funeral is for DEAD PEOPLE.” Phoebe just shrugged her shoulders. Tomato, tomato.

I decided to not take this as an omen or read into on a metaphorical level. I had bigger fish to fry, like finding a really hot outfit and getting an eyebrow wax. Because if I have one thing to show for myself after two decades, it’s better eyebrows. Check out those caterpillars:

IMG_8138My high school girlfriends and I decided to not take our significant others, because most husbands fall into one of two categories. He:

A. Would rather wax his chest hair than stand in a room full of strangers, especially the one stranger that dated his wife 20 years ago,

or

B. Would absolutely love to hang out with a room full of strangers, and become best friends with all of them, find them on LinkedIn, and have beers together the next time they come to town.

Ok, my husband may be the only B guy. But I didn’t feel like driving five hours in the car with the kids, so he had to stay home. Plus you can’t be the most popular guy at someone else’s reunion. It just adds more confusion to an already socially disorienting experience. Sorry Phil.

A few years ago I read an article by Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine called Why You Truly Never Leave High School. In it she discusses the problematic and at times traumatizing “big box” effect of high school. Basically, you fill a big cement building with kids who have nothing in common but their age.

In order to make sense of this chaos and social anarchy, adolescents assign each other labels (Jock, Brain, Dork, Prom Queen). According to Senior, because these roles are assigned at a formative time when your prefrontal cortex is still kind of…mushy, these labels tend to carry over into our adult lives. And like, not in a good way. “Most American high schools,” says Senior, “are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.”

Yikes. So if high school was so traumatizing, why, twenty years later, would I drive five hours to north Jersey to re-live the experience?

Because -for me, at least – that’s not the whole experience. I didn’t love high school, but I didn’t hate it either. I wasn’t Homecoming Queen or Class President. I was a middle of the road marching band dork who used my semi-responsible persona as an opportunity for minor rebellions. For example: the time I told the school secretary I had to drop a tuba mouthpiece off at the local repair shop, when really I went to buy cigarettes and Mountain Dew. Who is going to argue with a tuba mouthpiece?

Senior writes, “For most adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories.” I believe this to be true. My high school was kind of….quirky. A melting pot of two towns on Route 10 in East Hanover, New Jersey. The land of wigwam socks, Aqua Net, and diners. The school itself was a 70’s California style school comprised of separate buildings and covered catwalks….except it wasn’t built in California, it was built in Jersey…on swampland. When it rained, the mud would rise and worms would wiggle onto the catwalks; then when the sun came out, the pavement would be covered with smooshed, fried worms. It just made no sense. And to me, there is something sweet about that.

And while I may have endured my share of high school traumas (like that unfortunate prom alcohol poisoning incident), there were triumphs, too – namely, my girlfriends, who still get me in all my craziness, and look out for me just like they did twenty years ago.

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We pre-gamed the reunion at my friend Priya’s childhood home, and drinking wine coolers in the bathroom while experimenting with makeup and jewelry felt like old times. As I sat on the tub while Priya and Helen rifled through a box of bracelets, I was overwhelmed by a comforting sense of deja vu. As the clock ticked closer to go-time, however, I started to feel a little anxious.

“So what do I tell people I do?” I asked. “Like can I say I teach yoga even if I am not teaching yoga at this very moment?”

Priya paused, eyeliner in hand, and met my eyes in the bathroom mirror. “You tell them you are a writer, because that is what you are.”

“Yeah…but is that really true if I don’t make any money doing that?”

Helen looked up from the jewelry box. “No one is going to ask for your bank statements,” she said.

As it turns out, no one asked me what I did. Not one person. They asked about where I lived, if I had kids, but no one gave a shit if I was an astronaut or soccer mom. They were, however, concerned about my hair:

“But why is your hair straight?”
“Uhh, because I blew it out.”
“But it’s still curly, right? Like, underneath the temporary straightness?”
“Yes, why?”
“Because…you were…Jessie Power with really long, curly hair. It was kind of your thing.”

Now you tell me! I had a thing! Other than the prom-alcohol poisoning thing!

At the end of the night we all piled into the car, eager to get started on the post-reunion wrap-up. Many of our female classmates -as predicted by Jennifer Senior – remained the same. The smart girls are still smart, the party girls still party. The girl that hated you for whatever reason still hates you. The guys, however, had blossomed. The skinny boy from Geometry who never said a word is suddenly showing you photos of his three kids. The cool guy who wouldn’t give you the time of day is suddenly pulling you out on the dance floor to Turn The Beat Around by Gloria Estefan. There were some major full circle moments.  It kind of felt like a wacky extended family wedding. With lots of strobe lights. It is New Jersey, after all.

I see Jennifer Senior’s point about high school being dangerously arbitrary. But to me, it’s also kind of the beauty of it. We have nothing in common, yet we have this one HUGE THING in common. And twenty years later, that’s still a bond. You may not see these people ever again, but you care what happens to them. You celebrate their accomplishments. Your heart hurts for those who are struggling. I paused for a moment on the dance floor and looked around at all of us – jocks, brains, cheerleaders and band nerds, eating mozzarella sticks and dancing to Ace of Base…in what alternate universe would this happen other than high school?

It’s a celebration of randomness.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go blow dry my hair curly. Because you know, it’s kind of my thing.

 

 

Lessons From A Former Self

About two weeks ago I was talking to my neighbor, Tosh, about the weather.

“I am drowning in a multi-season heap of clothes,” I said. “Can I just put the damn shorts in a box and declare winter?”

“I wouldn’t, not yet,” she advised. “Remember that blog post when you went swimming with your clothes on? That was maybe late September or early October.”

And just like that, once I got over the ego boost that someone actually remembers one of my blog posts it occurred to me that this blog had a birthday. Two years ago I wrote the very first post.

It took me a few days to actually go back and read it. I am not a fan of reading my own writing. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, like hearing your own voice on an answering machine, (Do I really sound like that? No, seriously, when I talk, is that the voice you hear?) or reading a paper you wrote in college on something you knew nothing about, with a ridiculous title like:  Feminist or Femme Fatale? Sexism and Satire in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. You read it, shake your head, and say: “What the hell was I talking about? I’m an idiot.”

But nothing is more humiliating humbling than reading an old diary. I know this because on a recent attic purge my mom found this gem from 1990, which puts me at the ripe old age of 13.

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Here are some highlights:

Wednesday, August 22, 1990
“Well, I am going out with R. (I can’t reveal his name in case this falls into the wrong hands!!) I am glad I am going out with him and everything, but I’m not sure whether he likes me or not – you know? Well, we’ve been going out for about 4 or 5 weeks. I was away for 2 weeks and R was away for 2 weeks. So we haven’t had much time together. Mostly I called him, but he seemed happy to talk to me, but he never calls me. I can’t tell if he is going to dump me or not. Helen is having a party on Wednesday. I can’t wait! He better go!

Friday, August 24,1990
Today I babysat. It wuz boring! I watched 20/20 with Barbara Walters and it was really weird. It was about kids who were in comas and had near death experiences. They say they saw Jesus and dead relatives. Isn’t that cool? I would like to have that happen to me sometime. R is coming home tomorrow! I hope he can go to the party!

August 29,1990
Well the famous party is over. Maybe it wasn’t as great as I thought it would be. It was just ok.

September 3,1990
R dumped me. I am so depressed. He didn’t even do it himself! Geez. Maybe I’ll tell him off tomorrow. Yeah right no I won’t. I don’t really want to talk about it it’s making me feel worse.

I am not sure what I find most amusing/disturbing – the R saga, that I would like to have a near death experience “sometime,” or the fact that I am in 7th grade and watching Barbara Walters on a Friday night by myself.

In any case, going back and reading a blog from two years ago is kind of like reading that diary. It’s sort of funny, but also mortifying, like having a flashlight shone in the face of your most well-intentioned screw-ups.

I know, I know. Don’t think of it as failure, consider it an opportunity! A growth experience! I get that going back and dissecting the past will prevent me from re-creating it. Still, it makes me a little nauseous.

In her book Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes about our urge to bury the less graceful parts of ourselves:

It’s a tricky business – not rejecting any part of yourself at the same time that you’re becoming acutely aware of how embarrassing or painful some of those parts are.

Oh, Pema. Exactly.

When I read the blog from three years ago, I feel exhausted by the “me” I find there – by how hard I try at things even when clearly it is the wrong thing, how desperate I am to control things in my own stubborn but well-meaning way. I am frustrated by my default tendencies: to please, to assume that everyone’s happiness is somehow my responsibility, to falsely believe that if I can just do ______(get a job, have more sex, meditate, quit drinking wine during the week, create a budget, practice yoga, stop cursing, be Donna Reed, be Hillary Clinton, be someone other than me) suddenly it will all fall into place and the birds will sing and the sun will shine and I will have arrived.

Yet there was one nugget from that blog that didn’t make me want to stick my head in the oven spoke to me still:

In times of shared stress, you should order a pizza.  Use paper plates.  Kick the underwear under the bed. Create the space to be vulnerable -fragile, even- at the same time.  Then hold on to each other in this middle place.

I am still trying to find this middle place – how to be ambitious but not avaricious, loose but not lazy, free-spirited but not fool-hardy. And the one benefit to going back and rehashing the past is the realization that there is a learning curve to this whole process. I didn’t know that a boy not calling me was a super bad sign until he dumped me. I didn’t know that making monogramed pot pies would not alleviate marital tension until I made them.
We do the best we can with what we know at the time. And in the words of Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better.”

Tosh is right. After a few fleece and flannel mornings, Mother Nature gifts us with an almost-70 degree day. Phil’s breakfast meeting is cancelled so we take a morning walk after the kids go to school. We call these our “mobile executive meetings;” we discuss kids and schedule and the orthodontist’s payment plan. But there are periods of comfortable silence, because there is an ease with which we are together now. We decide to run down to the base of the cliff and then walk back on the rocks.

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He climbs up the rocks and then extends his hand to me. I hold my phone between my teeth as he pulls me up, shaking his head but smiling. You carry around too much stuff, he says. I laugh. Don’t I know it.

We haven’t walked these rocks in over a year; they have shifted and changed with the storms. The path is no longer contiguous – we need to climb down, trudge through the muck and climb back up. But the element of surprise keeps it interesting, the need to suddenly re-adjust our path keeps us on our toes.

We end on the beach and look for sea glass as we move toward home. There is no swimming on this walk, Phil doesn’t even suggest it. I worry that we have lost some of our passion, some of our go-big-or-go-home-ness. But then I decide that after a year of being pulled in by the tide and bashed up against the rocks, it feels good to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

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Not The Summer Of Daisy Chains and Water Balloons

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It was one crazy summer. We moved. Again. From PA to MA. Again. Because we are masochists like to keep things interesting.

Our house in Pennsylvania sold quicker than we anticipated; a good problem to have, but disorienting nonetheless. Then the closing date was pushed up a month. Then, another two weeks. This meant we had to find somewhere to live between July 17th and September 8th.

I won’t bore you with the logistics; I drank my way through most of it and forget the details. I highly recommend self-medicating your way through moving. The relevant data is 7 weeks, 3 rentals, 3 hotels, 3 grandparent visits, 4 beach weekends across two states, and 2,710.7 miles logged.

The summer travel map

Earlier in the summer I read a great blog post by my friend Lindsey on her blog A Design So Vast. It was called “They are Not Long, the Days of Percy Jackson and Nail Art.”

Her post made me think of summer’s past, mostly the summers of my youth, and how each summer did in fact have a theme: a Rainbow Loom-esque obsession, a game we couldn’t get enough, or the one hit wonder song we played, rewound and played again until our ears bled.

I remember the summer of:

  • Jelly shoes and monokinis
  • Collecting the Cruisin’ Classics tapes from the Exxon gas stations
  • Riding my bike to the Florham Park Pool, my towel draped around my neck
  • Lip-sync talent shows with my cousins (We called ourselves “Surfer Bri and The Waves”)
  • Trying to be cool and hang with my older cousins while they played Gin Rummy and listened to Eric Clapton
  • Airbrushed sweatshirts from the boardwalk (Ok, that was three summers. I’m from New Jersey)
  • Jenga competitions and leg wrestling

I remember my summers as a teenager with less specificity. Instead they are defined by one big moment or milestone:

  • My first kiss (which I botched miserably and still wish I could do over)
  • Getting my driver’s license, which lead to a summer of…
  • No-destination driving with my best friend Helen, smoking Parliament Lights and listening to Natalie Merchant.
  • Night swimming in my friend Priya’s pool.
  • Smoking and eating Necco Wintergreen Mints in the PathMark parking lot with my friend Maureen.
  • The summer of fifteen pounds disco fries at the Nautilus Diner. With gravy. Lots of it.
  • The summer of my Uncle Bill dying.

I didn’t want my kids to remember this summer as “the summer of moving.” Which is ridiculous because, really? They were not going to notice that we began the summer in one state and ended in another? But, I have never been one to let the truth get in the way of parental delusion.

So despite the chaotic conditions, I was determined to make this the best summer ever because I have no in-between. Moving isn’t traumatic, it’s an adventure! We are gypsies! We don’t need a house, we have each other! Home is wherever I’m with you! We don’t need camp, or a pool – we can make our own fun! We have beads and a sprinkler and sidewalk chalk!

I wanted it to be the summer of daisy chains and water balloons.

And herein lies the rub of how you want things to be and how they actually are.

This disconnect became clear to me when, moments after filling about seventy water balloons by hand, my children began pegging them at my head. Like, aggressively.

By the time we reached Phase 3 of the move (two weeks at my parents’ house in New Jersey) shit started to fall apart. People were not happy. The girls love my parents but the level of frenetic change and constant togetherness was too much; they were at each others’ throats. The dog’s hair started falling out. I blame the episodic alopecia on Fox News, which blares from the TV all day long. I am pretty sure my dog is voting for Hillary.

So I do what I always do when I feel out of control: I read self-help books. In this case, those of the parenting variety: Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, The Explosive Child, The Conscious Parent...I listened on my runs, in the car, I read in bed, I took notes.

But the books only seemed to backfire. The more I tried to reflectively listen and use my Calm Earth Mother voice the worse things got. Emma called bullshit on my paltry attempts at Zen: “STOP USING THE CALM VOICE! I HATE THE CALM VOICE! I WOULD RATHER YOU SCREAM LIKE A LUNATIC THAN USE THAT ANNOYING CALM VOICE! THE CALM VOICE DRIVES ME CRAAAAZZZZYYY!!!!

Alright-y then. Noted on the calm voice.

After crying in the bathroom I called my therapist back in Philly. She listened to the trials and tribulations of my Mommy Day Camp gone wrong: the crafts no one wanted to do, the games no one wanted to play, the fighting, the backtalk, the tag-team temper tantrums. By the end of my rant, I was in tears.

“What am I doing wrong???”

She was quiet for a moment.

“Well,” she said, “I am not a parenting expert, but maybe you need to lower your expectations. Maybe this isn’t the summer of daisy chains and water balloons. Maybe this is the summer of survival. You know, if everyone is alive at the end, that’s a win.”

I laughed. “So you are telling me to lower the bar.”

“Just a bit.”

So this is the part where I tell you I dropped my expectations and there was a dramatic shift and everyone was happy and peaceful and in-tune with the present moment.

No. The summer in progress continued. The girls fought like alley cats. I yelled a lot. I dropped the F-bomb. In front of the kids. More than once. I cried in the bathroom again. The circumstances remained the same, but my response to the circumstances shifted. My motto went from “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!” to “It is what it is.”

It is what it is.

In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach writes:

There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.

Acceptance is a concept I struggle with, because I think I associate it with complacency. If I give up my vision of a summer spent reading the classics aloud while eating homemade coconut milk parfaits, then what? I just give up? What do we do then – watch Full House and eat Choco Tacos?

Actually, yes. That’s exactly what we did. And I have to say, those 30 minutes on the couch each night watching DJ tease her bangs for the big dance and Uncle Jessie get attacked by Kimmie Kibler’s ostrich were some of the most peaceful moments of the summer.

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Maybe there is a difference between giving up and giving in. Giving up on expectation and giving in to what is. To what is needed right now. Giving in to the possibility of the moment, even when it feels like it’s all going to hell in a hand basket.

So while it wasn’t the summer of daisy chains and water balloons, it was the summer of:

A hiatus from parenting books: Early one morning I sat on the porch reading The Conscious Parent.

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Emma, also an early riser, came outside and plopped into the chair next to me. She leaned over to get a peek of the title, her eyes still squinty and swollen with sleep. Then, she leaned back in her chair and said, “Why do you read these books? Can’t you just figure things out? I think you are smart enough. I just think it would be a lot more interesting if you just kinda figured things out.”

I laughed. “Is this a challenge?”

“Um, heck yes.”

So I went to the library that afternoon and got out a novel. And reading it felt positively luxurious.

Getting outside: We spent the summer in close quarters, in homes that were not our own. Things could get tight.

When it all got a little too close for comfort, it was time to go outside and go for a walk.

“Whyyyy,  I don’t wanna go for a walk, my legs are so tired,” was the usual response. But once we got out there, they usually cooperated. It helps when this is the view from the street:

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Bribing with ice cream also worked.

Simple Pleasures: sunrises and sunsets,

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walking the dog to the lighthouse after dinner,

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a ferry ride,

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cousins,

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Phoebe sitting quietly on the sea wall,

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a drive-in movie.

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These were the moments of the summer when I stopped, took a breath, and said to myself:  We will be ok.

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We are going to make it after all.

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I will remember this as the summer of radical acceptance.

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Which brings me back to my original mission statement of the summer:

Moving isn’t traumatic, it’s an adventure! We are gypsies! We don’t need a house, we have each other! Home is wherever I’m with you!

I now see the motivation behind these words, and it goes something like this: I am your mom, and I feel guilty that you are moving again, so I am willing to become a walking carnival in order to distract you from this unpleasant reality. 

And no one was buying it.

I think it’s ok to try and make the best of things. But maybe the “best of things” is actually the whole thing.  Moving is an adventure. We are gypsies of the suburban variety. And home is wherever I am with these three people (and our dog). This is all true. But moving can be a little traumatic, and sometimes a house comes in handy. This is also true.

Maybe radical acceptance isn’t giving up, or choosing one thing or another, but making room for all of it. The reality and the possibility.

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Your Place in Space

In early June, our family traveled to Washington DC for the Toshiba Exploravision Awards Weekend. Emma and her two friends – Lola and Lela – accepted first place in the K-3 category for their science project on baby sea turtles.

The fact that they won first place is still somewhat stunning – not because they didn’t deserve it, but because winning was never really on their radar screen. Their project -the S.T.A.R. Sea Turtle Assistant Rod – was borne out of Lola’s summer vacation to the Outer Banks, where she learned that only 1 in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive the journey from nest to ocean. It’s the ultimate underdog story, and we Philadelphians are suckers for a good underdog story. Just watch Silver Linings Playbook.

The all-expense paid trip to DC was a whirlwind event:

The girls met their congressmen

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and senators.

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They had TV and radio interviews with Bill Nye the Science Guy,

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and presented their project to the Toshiba executives at the National Press Club.

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But there is one moment from the weekend that stands out in my mind. The girls were being interviewed at the National Press Club in front of an audience of over 200 people. The interviewer asked each girl a few questions, and then wrapped it up by asking Lola:

“What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to do something with animals or sea turtles?”

After a brief pause, Lola answered: “I don’t really know yet.”

The crowd laughed, because Lola is adorable and charming – and of course, why would she know? Such a perfect, honest answer. But when the girls came back to their seats, they put their heads together and whispered to each other. I heard Lola say:

“If they ask that again, what do I say? A vet? No, wait….a marine biologist!”

Then she repeated “marine biologist” a few times so she would remember how to pronounce it. This made me so sad for reasons I couldn’t name at the time. But the sound of Lola’s voice repeating “marine biologist” haunted me. It popped into my head just last week, at a Fourth of July BBQ, when someone asked me the dreaded question:

“What do you do?”

Suddenly I am Lola, up on stage under hot lights with a mic in my face; an audience of brilliant science nerds eagerly awaiting my insightful answer. I go from being in the moment, happily sipping my wine spritzer and enjoying the salty summer air to a state of total panic. My mind is now running the show. It sits in a director’s chair and shouts into a megaphone:

“Plug your blog! Give the yoga spiel! Play the mom card! Say you’re a marine biologist….anything!! JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION!!”

What I wanted to say was: “I do a lot of things. But right now I am here talking to you.” But instead I mumbled some lame answer about yoga and then booked it to the bar for a big girl glass of wine, sans spritzer.

When presented with these future-oriented questions, our mind yells “Action!” – or more specifically – “Re-action!” That is it’s job – the mind reacts. My mind reacts to pretty much everything like a monkey on speed. It is never satisfied with what is happening in the present moment. If I am writing this blog, I should be doing the laundry. If I am doing the laundry I should be writing the blog. It 100% wants me to be somewhere else, doing something else, talking to someone else, becoming someone else.

I am not promoting a life of inaction or navel gazing. But I am trying to take a step back and notice the difference between action and reaction. Lola took action to save the sea turtles because she was inspired to help the hatchlings survive. Thinking she now needs to be a marine biologist just because she loves sea turtles is a reaction to being trapped by an adult’s question and trying to give the “right” answer.

Action = I am doing this because it feels inspired or right for me.

Reaction = I am doing this because it feels like you maybe want me to do this, so it must be the right thing because you are probably smarter/older/wiser/better dressed than me. So…am I doing it right? Is this the right answer? Bueller? Wait…why am I doing this again?

In his book The Great Work of Your Life (a great read about dharma based on the Bhagavad Gita) Stephen Cope writes:

Longing for our idealized images of life separates us from our true selves and from our true callings.

What if we stopped asking our children “what do you want to be,” and replaced it with: “What do you love to do? What is your favorite activity? When do you lose track of time? When do you feel most alive?”

Maybe Lola will be a marine biologist someday. Or a teacher or CEO or fashion designer…or some new hybrid profession she invents all on her own. Who knows?

But the only thing Lola needs to be at eight years old is Lola.

The only thing Lola needs to be when she grows up is Lola.

And the only thing I need to be at thirty-eight is me. Not the future-idealized-finally-got-my-shit-together-me – I’m talking about the me that is sitting here right now, writing this blog. The braless, dirty-haired, no-career stay at home mom who is typing these words to you. And all you need to be is the you that is sitting there reading them.

In his closing speech at the Toshiba Exploravision Banquet, Bill Nye talked about finding our “place in space.”  Perhaps the first step in discovering our dharma is claiming the space we are already in.  Meeting ourselves as we are right now with compassion, acceptance and curiosity.

Maybe at this very moment, we are all exactly where we need to be.